Assad won’t leave Syria, Russia’s foreign minister says

MOSCOW — Syrian President Bashar Assad has no intention of leaving his country and rebels for the time being should put aside the demand that he step aside as a precondition for negotiations, Russia’s top diplomat said Saturday following a meeting in Moscow with the United Nations’ peace envoy to the conflict.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said envoy Lakhdar Brahimi told him that Assad was determined to “stay in his position to the end and will protect Syrian people, Syrian sovereignty and so on and so forth and there is no chance to change his position.” Brahimi met with the Syrian leader this past week before traveling on to Moscow.

Lavrov reiterated that Russia, which remains one of the Syrian leader’s few international allies, is not bound to the notion that Assad remain in power.

He also insisted that Russia is not supplying offensive weapons to Syria and was only fulfilling its contract obligations to supply defensive weapons such as anti-aircraft systems. Moscow shouldn’t be held responsible for the arsenal of Soviet-era weapons still at the Syrian government’s disposal, he said.

Brahimi in his turn warned against “the Somalization of Syria,” a reference to the long conflict between Somalia’s government and rebels. The envoy said Lebanon and Jordan could not accommodate a large number of additional refugees if fighting continued in neighboring Syria.

Lavrov said Russia was still open to holding talks with the Syrian opposition without preconditions with an aim of ending the fighting. Moaz Khatib, leader of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, had rejected Lavrov’s call last week for a dialog.

“To me personally it came as quite a surprise to read his statement that he is ready to meet with us only if we change our position (of backing Assad’s regime) and publicly apologize for this position,” Lavrov said at a news conference with Brahimi.

“We are ready for contacts with all the forces of Syrian opposition and proceed from the notion that they are thinking not of some ambitions of theirs but of their people’s destiny,” Lavrov said. “If they are convinced that Russia may play some role in this drama they must meet with our representatives without any conditions.”

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